Sunday, September 3, 2017

Vintage Cars and Flood Damage - Can They Be Saved?

Among the hundreds of thousands of cars flooded by Hurricane Harvey there are some collector vehicles, and owners will face the challenge - what to do with them?  Modern cars are usually insured, and fairly easily replaced.  It can be a hardship, but there is no fundamental barrier to replacing a 2009 Cadillac or a 2013 Toyota.  Mercedes S65 AMGs may be rare and exotic, but they are still making more of them.

What about your 1960s Barracuda or Lincoln?  What about the XK120 Jaguar from the 50s?  They aren’t making any more of those, and replacement may not be an option.  Even if it is insured, the car may have great sentimental value.  You don't want "any" 1963 Chevy, you want the one your dad took cross country, long ago.  Or maybe you are willing to get another car, but nothing comparable exists.  Perhaps you just spent two years restoring that car that just went in the water . . . 

At the same time, replacement may not be necessary.


Floods won't kill these old classics . . .


The biggest killer of late model cars is corrosion of the electrical systems.  A secondary problem is corrosion of the bodies, engines, and metal parts.   Those things seldom kill vintage cars.

Newer cars are filled with computers and multi-wire harnesses that are ruined the moment corrosion starts to bridge the gaps between pins and circuits – often just a few thousandths of an inch.  Sensor readings go awry, and systems fail.  Insurance companies have learned through hard experience that flooded electrical systems can seldom be fixed to stay, particularly if they have sat for a while.

If you own a vintage car that has seen flooding you will be glad to hear that the same isn’t necessarily true for your car.  Older cars have bigger and more rugged switches that are less likely to be damaged by a little water (or a lot of water, for that matter.)   Old cars don’t have computers, and their wiring is simple enough that we can take it apart and clean it.

In a new car the alternators, starters, window motors and other electrical bits are not serviceable.  They are replaceable.  The problem is cost.  Replacing every electric motor and sensor in the most basic Toyota will cost thousands.  Doing the same in a Mercedes S-Class will cost tens of thousands. 

Old cars are totally different.  We can dismantle and clean every motor and switch in a sixties car and the parts bill probably won’t be but a few hundred dollars.  We may need a week’s worth of time but we CAN do it, and the job will last.  Older cars are far more repairable than the cars of today.

Where a new car may have a $2,000 instrument cluster old cars tend to have individual gauges.  Even when water damaged they are almost always repairable at comparatively modest cost.

Old cars tend to have much simpler interiors, which means it’s a lot easier to strip everything out and dry it after a flood.  The quicker you do that, the better.

Old cars are just as vulnerable as new cars to water getting in the engine.  If the motor floods in a 1957 Jaguar it should be pulled apart and overhauled if it's sat more than a week or two.  The difference is, that job will probably cost ½ to 1/3 what it will cost on a 2017 Jaguar.

Furthermore, the 2017 Jaguar has thousands of dollars of ancillary parts on the engine that will be ruined by flooding.  Motorized intakes.  Electronic fuel injectors.  Alternators.  Sensors.  Each piece hundreds of dollars and dozens of them.  Those parts do not exist on the vintage cars, and that makes the job of flood recovery possible.

What about the interior?  I’ve seen quite a few antique car interiors – especially the wool cloth and velour ones – come through fresh water flooding with very little damage.   We clean them with an extraction cleaner and they are fine.   When interiors are damaged they can be repaired with upholstery techniques that are timeless, where the interiors of new cars must be replaced with expensive factory-made pieces.

If you own a vintage car that is in a flood remember time is of the essence.  If your engine was filled with water last week, we can probably flush it out and get it running next week with no major repairs.  Wait three months and you’ll be looking at an overhaul.

Another thing – if your old car goes into water, DO NOT just start it up (or try to)  If there is water in the intake and you draw it into the cylinders you will break rods and pistons.  If water gets into an automatic transmission it’s instant ruin to put it in drive running.  Yet those systems can be drained, flushed and put back in service with no lasting damage, if done right.

Remember that floods don’t always come from storms or snowmelts.  Your vintage convertible can sustain just as much damage with the top down in a summer thunderstorm.  The thing to remember is this:  Comprehensive insurance usually covers all sorts of water damage, even if you did something dumb.  Just be truthful with the insurance company.  It’s no crime, forgetting to close a window or a roof.

Some vintage cars are even prepared for flooding.  For example, we restore old Land Rovers, Land Cruisers, and Jeeps for people on the Cape and Islands.  Many of those cars spend time on the beach and for various reasons, some of them end up in the surf.  We’ve devised a number of strategies to minimize the impact of what may in that case be “inevitable flooding.”

We use saltwater-rated marine electrical connections, and seal all the wire junctions with liquid electrical tape.  We paint or finish insides of panels and pieces to prevent corrosion if they get wet.  We replace automotive cloth seat covers with marine fabrics like Sunbrella and we use marine grade wood and foam underlays.  Everywhere we can, we treat with Waxoyl corrosion protection and/or POR15 paint.

Stainless hardware now holds this body in place, rather than the original bare steel
Everything is painted or plated, and after this photo was shot, covered in Waxoyl


Sometimes people balk at the cost of that, but the money spent for a beach car may be repaid ten times over during the next ten years.  We can’t eliminate corrosion but we can sure slow it down.

The simplicity of vintage cars makes it practical to repair them after most floods.  Their rarity and value makes the effort worthwhile.




© 2017 John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Bentley, Rolls-Royce, BMW/MINI, Mercedes, and Land Rover restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

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